Drawing the Past: Art: Columba’s Cross: Part 1

Drawing the Past: Columba’s Cross: Graphic Novel:

Part 1

cell colour version
Extract from Page 1 (below) Columba’s Cross


The first artwork above is an extract from the first page (above) of a graphic novel, Columba’s Cross. It shows a man sitting in a cell circa 1973. He has been interned in the cell without a trial. He is in the Maze prison and is under threat of torture. Although this graphic novel is not my first politically motivated art, the creation of Columba’s Cross and the drawing out of this scenario was a cathartic process for me.

colour graphic 3
four layers: ink drawing; basic shading; layer of colour with edits; finished artwork

I am now in my late fifties and like many of my generation, I experienced over thirty five years of a war zone through the Northern Irish “Troubles”. And, although I was never interned or imprisoned, as a Northern Irish Catholic during the conflict, the thought that I could have been, at any stage, was always there.

Sometimes when you see those deeply affected by the troubles on TV especially those who have been grieving for years you can’t but help but feel so sorry for them. I just felt based on my own experience that writing down what they feel, whether that’s in the form of a poem or a short story or a graphic novel, may help in some small way, simply putting down their thoughts so that they no longer exist solely in their heads.

colour graphic 2
Individual coloured figures and details

For me it was the every act of committing those experiences to paper had a definite positive effect. I’ve had contacts from readers who have expressed how reading of my experiences helped them. I think it was Aristotle who said “the idea of losing our own troubles by immersing them in those of someone else” I feel that this may provide a little solace to others and (in some way) contribute to dealing with our troubled past here in the North.

There is some current thinking that reflects that this would be beneficial. Dr Matthew Lieberman, a neuroscientist at the University of California, outlined his findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in a lecture called Putting Feelings in to Words. In a recent interview with The Telegraph he said:

Expressing yourself in print was “a sort of unintentional emotion regulation.
It seems to regulate our distress, I don’t think that people sit down in order to regulate their emotions but there is a benefit. I think it could play a role in why many people write diaries or write bad lyrics to songs – the kind that should never be played on the radio.”

final panel purposeful enquiry copy

“Dr Lieberman proved the therapeutic power of writing by scanning the brains of 30 individuals while they described distressing pictures. He found that the act tended to reduce activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain connected with emotion and fear and increased activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the mind’s regulator. This suggests that the mere action of writing about an emotion was a way of calming down the brain and re-establishing mental balance. Often the author is unaware of the therapeutic effect of the task, it was claimed.”

graphic columba 1
Black and white inked in individual drawings

The drawing of: old detention centres; policemen; prison officers; British Army soldiers; the old Bogside (an area of Derry) and Provisional IRA volunteers definitely brought long buried experiences to the fore, those drawings have also been a form of exorcism for me, the artist.

Giving long gone, ghosts flesh in the form of digital drawings, has also given me a sense that perhaps, these negative violent events could also be used, (not just by myself, the artist) but by others, as a way of telling difficult stories,providing a way of “getting them out” and presenting those stories in an accessible universal way – in the form of graphic stories, or as art works in their own right.

graphic columba 2
Black and white finished drawings. These were created separately, then coloured and included as layers in each individual panel

They say, “if you’re going to write, write about what you know” with that in mind, I set the novel in early 1970s when the conflict was at its worst.

soldiers 1
Drawings of: British Soldier circa 1973; Prison Officer; Soldier detail

There are many graphic novels set in war zones, World War 1; World war 2: Vietnam, etc… I don’t know if I could have completed the necessary research to set my story in any of those particular conflicts. But when I began this story I quickly discovered, that I really knew the fine detail intrinsically. I remembered the uniforms, the guns, the vehicles,from that period. All that knowledge just sitting there…

car front
Ford Cortina MK 3 1970s car make

car back

The British army, for example, changed their battle dress many times over thirty years. The standard uniform of the 1970s bears little resemblance to the contemporary one. I had all this useless knowledge. I was familiar with the fact that the army used SLRs (Self Loading Rifles). That was the one they had back then. It made sense, therefore, to set the story within a very familiar context.

snatch squad copy
British Army “Snatch Squad” Snatch squads were deployed during riots to “snatch” rioters for arrest.

As boys and teenagers we would have been familiar with stories of older brothers, uncles, fathers being dragged out of their beds at night by The British Army or the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary), and taken away to holding detention centres and then disappearing into high security prisons. So, I was also familiar as to the form of those places. The security, the barbed wire enclosures, armed guards, brutal prison regimes and allegations of torture,and the rumours that they were staffed by religious bigots only there to get at Roman Catholics. All this would have been common parlance in the Derry of the early 1970s.

Extract from Columba’s Cross: Page 2

Equally, on the other side of the coin we were also familiar with the other protagonists in the conflict, the IRA (Provisional Irish Republican Army). Although, they were a guerilla army with no formal structure they did favour certain types of weapon. The central character, Colm O Neill, brutalised by his experiences in the Maze Prison joins the IRA…TO BE CONTINUED…

can 1 copy
Extract from Columba’s Cross: panel
Drawing the Past: Art: Columba’s Cross: Part 1

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